Remembering Rita

Rita G. Palmer Table of Contents

Presentation Honors A Hampton Heroine

By Liz Premo

Atlantic News, Thursday, February 26, 2004

AN HONORABLE TRIBUTE - Lane Memorial Library volunteer John Holman (right) makes a special presentation of Ansell Palmer (left) - a carefully-arranged binder containing articles and other memorabilia about Palmer's sister Rita, who as an Army Corps Nurse was held as a POW in the Philippines during World War II.
[Atlantic News Photo by Liz Premo]

HAMPTON - The life and times of one of Hampton's own World War II heroines was celebrated at a special presentation held last week in the New Hampshire Room of the Lane Memorial Library.

Library volunteer John Holman presented to lifelong resident Ansell Palmer a binder containing a collection of articles and other memorabilia compiled as a tribute to Palmer's sister, 1st Lt. Rita G. Palmer James, who served as an Army Corps Nurse during WWII.

Rita is perhaps best known for her nearly three-year experience as a prisoner of war, held captive by the Japanese with other POWs at Santo Tomas prison camp in Manila, the Philippines from 1942-45. Her incredible story, documented for a 1945 newspaper article, was included in the white binder, a photograph of her in uniform featured prominently on the front cover.

SCHOOL PALS - During a special presentation held in her honor at the Lane Memorial Library, four of Rita Palmer's friends from the Hampton Academy and High School Class of 1936 paired up with their high school portraits. Pictured here (from left) are Francis "Frank" Nownes, Alta Gillmore Kimball, Margaret Noyes Lovett, and Eleanor Palmer Young (Rita's cousin).
[Atlantic News Photo by Liz Premo]

With Rita's brother, four of her classmates (all members of Hampton Academy & High School Class of 1936) and Lane Library staff listening, Holman read a tribute that gave a brief summary of Rita's life. Born on February 23, 1918 to Charles and Bernice Palmer, Rita was raised in Hampton, a direct descendent of William Palmer, one of the town's first settlers.

A 1939 graduate of Deaconess Hospital Nurses Training in Boston, Rita joined the US Army Nurses Corps in 1940, serving in the Philippines in a field hospital in Bataan and Corregidor until taken prisoner. Following her captivity and ultimate release, she was awarded the Purple Heart and Oak Leaf Cluster for her military service.

After her return to the states, Rita eventually went on to marry Lloyd James of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they made their home and raised two sons (Douglas and Richard) and two daughters (Katherine and Barbara). A widow when she died on February 14, 2002, Rita left behind her four adult children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

She also left behind a group of friends (and in one case a cousin), who fondly spent some time remembering their classmate following Holman's presentation last week. "She was more like a sister to me than a cousin," commented Eleanor Palmer Young, who had brought with her an album full of photographs from their school days and subsequent reunions. Born two months after her Cousin Rita, Eleanor pointed out that "Rita was the first editor of the Hampton Academy 'Script,'" copies of which were included in the album.

Classmate Alta Gillmore Kimball recalled how "a few nights before she left, a group of us took her out to dinner at Rockingham Junction. We were so happy for her, [and] we celebrated her going to the Philippines. Little did we know how it would turn out."

Margaret Noyes Lovett, who described Rita as "a lot of fun" and "very caring," remembered being "one of the first to go down to the [Palmer] house to see her when she first got home [from overseas]. It was a big day for her." Recalling how as teens they had gone to Portsmouth to see a movie that featured nurses in it, Margaret revealed that Rita said at the time, 'That is what I want to do.'"

Their fellow classmate, Frank Nownes, called Rita "a darn good-looking woman" and shared how Rita and some girlfriends pulled up in a car in front of his Exeter Road Home. "They thought it would be a great idea to take me for a ride," says Nownes, recalling that "the car was so crowded" he had to sit on one of the girls' laps.

Rita's brother Ansell didn't hesitate to share his own recollections of his older sister, such as the time her class and his held lessons at the exact same time, on opposite sides of one classroom. Rita took part in school plays and played violin in the school orchestra, and was member of a knitting club. "She was really quite active in school activities," Ansell said. She also caught rides to school in "The Comet," a car "built from scratch" and captured for posterity in a photograph that appears in a Hampton history book found at the library.

READING UP ON FAMILY HISTORY - Ansell Palmer and his cousin, Eleanor Palmer Young, take a closer look at the binder containing articles compiled by Lane Memorial Library volunteer John Holman and presented to Ansell in honor of his sister Rita Palmer James, whose documented experiences as a POW in the Philippines during World War II are included in the pages of the binder.
[Atlantic News Photo by Liz Premo]

Ansell went on to note that "one of Rita's main interests was the beach," explaining how she would frequently go to the seashore to work on her tan. That wasn't the only place Rita and her friends would go swimming, however. "We used to go to the Tide Mill to swim," said Eleanor, to whom a somewhat surprised Ansell remarked, "Us boys used to skinny dip there!" "I know!" laughed Eleanor, revealing how the girls would sometimes "go down and hide behind the bushes" when the boys were there.

On a somewhat more serious note, Ansell also recalled how he was serving in the US Navy on the Big Island of Hawaii when he read an article in a bulletin announcing that Rita and the other Santo Tomas prisoners had been liberated by US forces. "I was able to get to Oahu to see her on her birthday," said Ansell. "Our mother kind of appreciated that," particularly after not being able to be in contact with Rita for three years.

"It was hard not knowing where she was," said Eleanor. "She went through so much."

Mentioned in a book titled "We Band of Angels" and paid tribute to in her own special section on the Lane Memorial Library's Web site, Rita G. [Palmer] James remains very much alive in the hearts and memories of those friends and family members she left behind when she passed away two years ago. Her contribution to her country has been described as "heroic," "unforgettable" and "an inspiration" -- one that's indeed worthy of remembrance and captured in the pages of a most fitting tribute.